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Celebs such as Maria Sharapova, who mislead people, shouldn’t get away lightly

Consumer activists say part of the onus of misleading advertisements should also be on the brand ambassador. The amendments to the proposed Consumer Protection Act 1986 include strict penal action against celebrities who endorse brands that make misleading claims

editorials Updated: Nov 22, 2017 17:25 IST
Hindustan Times
Maria Sharapova,MS Dhoni,Amrapali
Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova is being investigated for cheating and conspiracy after a proposed luxury housing project in Gurugram that she endorsed was abandoned by the builders(AFP)

The Gurgaon police has charged five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova with cheating and conspiracy after a proposed luxury housing project in Gurugram that she endorsed was abandoned by the builders, leaving buyers high and dry. The 30-year-old tennis star travelled to India in 2012 to launch Ballet by Sharapova, an apartment complex which prospective buyers were promised would house a tennis academy, a clubhouse and a helipad. The project was to have been completed by 2016.

Commerce, not common sense usually drives such endorsement deals. It is unlikely Sharapova reassured herself about the antecedents of the developer or its track record before signing the deal. Then, ignorance can’t be an excuse, not for people making a lot of money from endorsements, and definitely not for people from countries such as the US and the UK where consumer protection laws are so much stronger. Pierce Brosnan claimed, after being criticised for appearing in an ad for a pan masala brand, that he had been misled.

Even in India, endorsers are becoming more careful. Last year, Mahendra Singh Dhoni resigned as brand ambassador of real estate company Amrapali when it became clear that it was in trouble, and wouldn’t be able to meet its commitments to home buyers. And Virat Kohli and Pullela Gopichand have refused to endorse carbonated soft drinks because these are bad for health.

Is it fair to blame endorsers? Many consumer activists say it is. Popular endorsers, including Dhoni and Sharapova, attract and convince buyers who may otherwise not have bought a certain product. The problem is far more severe in India where people with expertise or who excel in one area are immediately believed to have expertise in other areas. This is a reasonable argument and celebrities should exercise greater diligence while deciding on the product they endorse.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that a law to replace the existing Consumer Protection Act 1986 will be introduced in the winter session of Parliament. The new law will likely provide for penal action against celebrities who endorse brands that make misleading claims. The fine line between ignorance and wilful deceit can be debated, but this law, if it comes into effect, is certain to deter celebrities from lending their name to brands they themselves are not convinced about.

But consumer protection can’t be left to the good sense of brand endorsers (or, in fact, to that age-old warning, Caveat Emptor). It also needs a strong product liability law.

First Published: Nov 22, 2017 17:23 IST